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THE ESSENTIAL DAVE MATTHEWS
ON AN ACOUSTIC TOUR, THE POP PHENOMENON GETS BACK TO THE MUSICAL BASICS

If you fronted one of the hottest bands around, had a discography of multiplatinum CDs and the nation's second-highest-grossing tour last year, selling out Giants Stadium in two hours, what would you do during your time off? Play measly college shows, like the kind you played before you were hailed as a superstar band?

If you're Dave Matthews, yes, you do.

The leader of the Dave Matthews Band is going not to Disney World, but back to the intimate college auditoriums that gave him his start. And he's not being safely backed by the innovative folk-rock-jazz fusion band that bears his name, either. Rock's newest alpha male is showing up with a buddy and two acoustic guitars, without his virtuoso support staff. This is what the head of one of the hardest-working bands in rock does for fun. This is Dave on vacation.

He'll show up locally Monday Feb. 1 when he and colleague Tim Reynolds play a sold-out show at the Center for the Arts, University at Buffalo North Campus.

Matthews' musical ascent began in Charlottesville, Va., in 1991 after he met Reynolds.

"(Matthews) worked at Miller's, this restaurant in Charlottesville, where I used to play all the time," Reynolds said by phone from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where the Matthews-Reynolds acoustic tour had a day off. "He would come and see my band and he would sing a couple times, and then I thought he should really get a band because he's really good.

"He would just sit down at the piano or just pick up a guitar and play something he wrote. We would rock out wildly, play rap, whatever. That's how we got to know one another.

"I could just tell he had so much talent. He didn't need to be (anyone else's) lead singer."

While Matthews began playing frat parties with other musicians he met in the University of Virginia college town of Charlottesville -- bassist Stefan Lessard, drummer Carter Beauford, saxophonist Leroi Moore and violinist Boyd Tinsley -- Reynolds continued his Monday night gigs and even formed a band of his own. But whenever the Dave Matthews Band needs an electric guitarist, either in the studio or on the road, Reynolds has stepped up, becoming an unofficial sixth member.

"When they started out . . . I would sit in with them on a few gigs. I've worked on all their music in the studio," Reynolds says.

Reynolds' first stint on a major Dave Matthews Band tour came when the band played Red Rocks, the outdoor amphitheater near Denver. "I was in Colorado with my band and I had a day off," he says. "I was going to jam on a couple of songs, and Dave said: 'Well, just play the whole night. You know all the songs.' So I wound up being there at the time that they recorded their one live CD as a band which they released," Reynolds says.

"Live at Red Rocks" debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart in the autumn of 1997. It features a searing, soaring solo by Reynolds on a cover of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," one of the release's most-praised tracks.

So began Reynolds' longtime association with the band. When the constantly touring DMB would take a break from packing huge arenas, Reynolds and Matthews would hit the road. "Even when they first started the band, we did these kinds of (acoustic) gigs from the beginning," Reynolds, 41, says. "In local places in Charlottesville, in coffeehouses, people really dug it."

The DMB's incredibly obedient followers, who trade bootleg recordings on the Internet and religiously attend their shows, apparently don't care which other members of the band make an appearance, as long as Matthews is there. "It's obviously a different format, a very nice format where Dave could sing a little differently and not have to sing loud -- in a much more intimate setting where people could sit closer" than at stadium shows, Reynolds says.

It's a style that best reveals the essence of Matthews -- a hauntingly sexy vocalist and surprisingly fluent acoustic guitarist. Stripped of the band's bevy of instruments and endless variety of influences, Matthews' playing, singing and songwriting is open and naked -- and up to the challenge.

The 32-year-old Matthews seemingly lives to perform, and the absence of his bandmates and the cramped size of the venues apparently are no deterrent. "He just loves doing this. This is really different from the band. He just likes to play," Reynolds says.

How does the music of the Dave Matthews Band hold up to the unplugged format, with none of the saxophones, violins, flutes or banjos that distinguish it from the other jam-oriented bands it's continually compared with, namely Phish and the Grateful Dead? "Dave's music, without production, without the band, is still really strong, the songs by themselves," Reynolds says. "I think those songs are still alive. We try to play them different every night. It's really interesting for me because they're really good songs. You can play around with them."

If the first few stops on the acoustic tour are any gauge, Matthews' legion of fans love the bare-bones versions of his songs every bit as much as their dynamic originals. "I wear earplugs," Reynolds says, explaining that years of loud playing have left him with sensitive ears, "but sometimes (during performances) I'm thinking, 'What's that funny sound?' and it's people singing along."

The duo will do a few of Reynolds' songs, too, as well as some covers. "It's really interesting to hear Dave, who already has a style of writing, to hear him sing someone else's lyrics. Like to hear him sing 'Mercy Street' by Peter Gabriel, it just slays me, man. You know, you hear the words in a totally different way. It will be fun to hear the way he sings these songs," Reynolds says.

Matthews is equally effusive with praise for his friend. He told the Baltimore Sun that Reynolds "is such an influence on me, I'd tell people just to buy whatever he does."

This isn't a case of a wildly popular rocker giving a chum an undeserved break by grandly taking him out on the road. And Matthews is not the only one who worships Reynolds' playing. In its review of the first stop on the current tour (which sold out in a breathtaking nine minutes), the Richmond Times-Dispatch said, "Reynolds was simply awesome as he drew mandolin and bass sounds from his acoustic guitar, attacked the fret board with squealing passion and whacked the body of his guitar to emit symphonic waves."

Other reviews report the concerts are punctuated by shouts of "We love you, Dave" and "You rock, Tim," as well as between-song patter by Matthews. "Dave's a really funny guy, so we're always on the verge of giggling (on stage). These shows are very informal," Reynolds says.

And Reynolds' performance philosophy echoes that of his superstar friend: "If you really like to play, why not just do it?"